VALib v56n4 - Building Digital Archives Collections at Northern Virginia Community College

We might not think of community colleges in Virginia as institutions with deep historical roots. The Virginia Assembly established the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) in 1966 in order to fill the need for two-year college programs in the state. The fiftieth anniversary of VCCS will arrive in 2016, and that event suggests an opportunity to look back at the history of community colleges in Virginia. At the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, we have already begun this process by developing a digital collection to house and display historical documents from our campus archives. We have identified student publications, meeting minutes, event programs, and photographs as candidates for digitization.

Done well, a digital
collection should tell the
story of thematically
similar cultural objects… .

In “Defining Collections in Distributed Digital Libraries,” Carl Lagoze and David Fielding define a collection as a “set of criteria for selecting resources from the broader information space.” 1 Essentially, collections are sets of items that meet some specific criteria of provenance and pertinence. They are commonly found in libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions. Digital collections take the concept and apply it to images of items on the Web. Those items might include printed text documents, printed images, video, and audio. They might also include born-digital items. Digital collections aim to extend the reach of these items beyond their permanent homes in an archive to anyone with Internet access. Digital collections make it possible to display items online that might not get as much exposure in their analog formats. Done well, a digital collection should tell the story of thematically similar cultural objects to an audience.

It is my hope that NOVA’s experience will enlighten and guide other similar institutions in creating their own digital collections. While institutions with valuable treasures in their collections might have a digital collections librarian or digital initiatives librarian, no one involved in this project at NOVA had any prior experience with digital collections. Despite that, we learned by trial and error and have managed to establish an effective workflow for digitizing our documents and making them searchable and browsable on the Web.

Given the limitations of our staff, it was important to start with a project modest in scope. Digital collections can start small. We identified the most appealing items in our archives—student newspapers, Campus Council minutes, commencement programs, and photographs. These core items made up our initial collections. The student newspapers reported on events throughout the college’s history and in some cases remain the only record of those events. Campus Council minutes describe the nuts-and-bolts decision-making processes that contributed to the development of the Alexandria Campus of NOVA. Commencement programs include the names of graduates and their programs as well as the names of speakers. Photographs of people and original building and site plans for the Alexandria Campus add depth and color to the collections. These items have comprised the core collection we have built to show the capabilities of digital collections on the Web.

Top: Digitally archived materials include these early sketches of the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Bottom: Newspapers published by students at the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College—October 24, 1975, and November 11, 1985.

There are some preliminary steps that institutions should take before engaging in a digitization project for digital collections. Through trial and error, we learned a few:

We identified items to be scanned that contributed to building a historical picture of Northern Virginia Community College. We reviewed a number of digital collections software options, comparing costs, ease of use, search features, and development time, and we selected CONTENTdm from OCLC. Based on our current subscriptions with OCLC, we were able to use CONTENTdm to display up to 1,000 items or 10 GB of items on the Web for free. We purchased a copy stand and a large flatbed scanner to digitize items. We were able to use existing computers and monitors to process images. For staffing, we relied on staff volunteers, an intern, and students to work on the digitization. We tried to make the workflow simple so that almost anyone could contribute to the scanning of items. For storage, we used a networked server to store large files as well as a portable hard drive to transfer them from one computer to another without taxing the network’s resources. We are still determining what level of quality of archival digital files we will be able to keep.

As we researched this project, we saw that a robust workflow is essential to making sure that digitization, metadata creation, and the building of a website are as smooth as possible. We realized the importance of tracking each item through each step in the process—removal from the archives, digitization, moving digital files, processing digital files, adding metadata to those files, uploading them to the Web, and finally preserving them in some form on a server. Establishing a clear workflow ensures that items are not scanned or processed twice and allows staff to pick up right where they left off regardless of where they are in the workflow process.

A basic workflow for digital collections has the following components:

Some challenges we have faced include finding networked server space to store files, finding the most time-efficient ways to scan and process images, and determining best practices for metadata within the context of our digital collections software. CONTENTdm is widely employed for digital collections, and the option to use it for free was an attractive one; but it required some time for development and troubleshooting. We worked with CONTENTdm’s customer service to deal with problems as they arose.

We are continuing to work to achieve our goal of building a stable, extensible, scalable, searchable, browsable digital collection that can serve to capture NOVA’s history for years to come. We hope that our model will inspire other community colleges to build their own digital collections.

David Anderson manages the Arlington Center Library of Northern Virginia Community College. He can be contacted at .


1 Carl Lagoze and David Fielding, “Defining Collections in Distributed Digital Libraries,” D-Lib Magazine 4 (November 1998), . VL